“I owe those unions. When their leaders call, I do my best to call them back right away. I don’t consider this corrupting in any way; I don’t mind feeling obligated” (Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006). WHEN he was on the road promoting his 2006 book A Country That Works, US trade union leader Andy Stern liked to spice up his stump speech with catchy, thought provoking anecdotes about change in the global economy. Stern would speak of a world that produced more transistors each year than it grew grains of rice; of a US jobs market where just eight of the 30 fastest growing jobs required a college education; how the Furby, a US-made children’s toy, had four times the computing power of the Apollo spaceship that landed on the moon; how there were more companies than countries on the list of the world’s 100 biggest economies.
As head of the two million-strong Service Employees International Union, Stern wrote the book to chart a new direction for Big Labour. He argued that in revolutionary economic times unions were losing membership, and their political clout, because their leaders were captive to an outdated class-warfare ideology.
But Stern did more than just theorise. In 2005, when the world was watching the disaster of New Orleans unfold in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Stern’s SEIU and six other unions broke away from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s dominant trade union federation, and set up a new organisation called Change To Win. Now, 2 1/2 years later and after a presidential election where the banner of change flew higher than any other, Stern is being touted as a possible labour secretary in what is expected to be the most pro-union White House in decades.
After years of declining relevance and a membership that has dwindled to just 12per cent of US workers, organised labour has, in Barack Obama, a president-elect with a 98 per cent pro-labour voting record who has promised to pass the most radical changes in US labour relations law since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Obama has promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as “card check”, legislation that would make it easier for unions to organise by doing away with secret ballot elections to determine whether workplaces become unionised.
The legislation also would impose on US business the toughest unfair dismissal laws the country has seen, including a $US20,000 fine for each violation and recompense to wrongly sacked workers at three times the value of lost wages and entitlements.
On election eve, Teamsters boss James P. Hoffa could hardly contain himself when he predicted card check would help unions recruit hundreds of thousands of new members and force employers to pay better wages. “This is going to be the law of the land when Barack Obama wins,” Hoffa gloated.
At a conference this year Stern predicted the effect of card check on union membership would be even greater. Unions, he said, would grow by 1.5 million members annually for 10 to15 years, increases that would fortify unionfinances.
Despite the prospect of card check making old-style union heavies such as Hoffa more powerful, Republicans barely uttered a word in the election campaign. Asked by CNBC’s business journalist Maria Bartiromo why he wasn’t making it a key issue, John McCain moaned about campaign constraints allowing just three or four messages to be pushed at any one time.
The truth was that McCain’s only hope of victory rested with white, blue-collar voters in rust-belt states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio. Because this demographic is also a union demographic, McCain stayed silent.
But more significant was the fact Obama also was silent on card check. Now, with the stardust of election night finally settling and the daunting economic challenges facing the president-elect clearly in focus, doubts about Obama’s once rock-solid commitment to the union agenda are starting to emerge.
Many believe card check was one of the issues in Obama’s mind on election night when, in his victory speech, he warned: “we may not get there in one year, or even in one term”. Obama’s problem is that unions spent upwards of $US400 million on his campaign and those of Democrats in key Senate races. In addition, thousands of unionists door-knocked and staffed phone banks in swing states in the crucial final weeks of the campaign.
With victory achieved, the unions expect Obama to deliver on his card check promise. “The Employee Free Choice Act is our No1 legislative priority for next year,” AFL-CIO chief economist Thea Lee said immediately after the election. “It was the centrepiece of our electoral efforts. We are very confident that it will happen.”
The same message was heard in Puerto Rico this year when Stern’s SEIU resolved to mobilise the union’s resources during the first 100 days of the new Congress to ensure that worker priorities such as card check and health care for all are immediately actioned. The campaign is to include a staggering 10million phone calls to members of Congress. But with the economic outlook worse than at any time since the Depression, the AFL-CIO’s New York president Denis Hughes admits that card check is a big ask.
“We expect a real battle on card check,” Hughes says. “Despite last year’s congressional vote in favour, we don’t have unilateral support in the Democratic Party for it and there’s a view that the economic downturn demands a more conservative approach to labour issues.”
If Obama is intent on delaying or even abandoning card check, giving the labour secretary post to Stern, a darling of the educated, well-heeled Democrat Left, could be his best strategy. For one thing, Stern is known as a close follower of the zeitgeist, a pragmatist happy to bend his principles to fit changing circumstances. This is best and most controversially seen in the business-friendly trade unionism that has helped him nearly double the SEIU membership since he took over the union in 1996.
In A Country That Works, Stern argues that capital and labour benefit from teamwork and they need organisations that solve problems, not create them. To this end the SEIU has done deals whereby companies allow partial unionisation in exchange for political support and work practice concessions that increase company profits.
Stern champions this as unions “adding value”. His critics call it selling out. They point to a deal in California where a nursing home chain was unionised on the basis that workers would not speak out publicly against abuse of patients or health code violations. In return the union lobbied for limiting the right of patients to sue.
Stern also has unsettled the labour movement by suggesting that social security might be acceptable, and for supporting the Chinese state union that has been accused of helping Beijing suppress workers’ rights. The flipside is Stern’s internationalism helped ensure Wal-Mart’s China operations were unionised.
Last year card check passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 241-185, with only two of 230 Democrats opposing it. In the Senate the vote was 51-48, well short of the 60 votes needed to trump a filibuster. Every Democrat, including Obama, voted in favour.
The vote was academic in the sense that George W. Bush had promised to use his veto if card check got through, but with Obama to take over in January, it’s a different story. As senator Edward Kennedy told the Senate last year, Democrats would bring back card check “again and again until we prevail”.
“I guarantee this,” he said. “We get a Democrat in the White House and the Employee Free Choice Act will be the law of the land.”
Opponents of card check argue that removing the secret ballot will lead to industrial anarchy, with workers and employers intimidated by strong-arm unions. “This is a blatant attempt to use undemocratic means to revive trade union membership,” says Justin Hakes, of the US Chamber of Commerce. “Without the privacy of the secret ballot, workers will be pressured to do whatever the union wants.”
Proponents of card check say it will remove the clear bias against unions that exists in the present law. In many cases, employers bar union recruiters from the workplace education while hiring outside consultants to run anti-union sessions that workers are compelled to attend. Unions also accuse employers of using the lead-up to an election to threaten and intimidate workers.
If Obama wants card check badly enough, the Congress will likely deliver him the numbers. If he doesn’t, the new year holds the tantalising prospect of Obama at war with the unions and with the likes of Kennedy, who would love nothing more than to see card check passed into law before his brain cancer can take its final toll.